Thinking a local Cosmopolitanism – the Kochi Muziris Biennale: Interview with Dilip Menon by Riyas Komu and CS Venkiteswaran

English transcript of  interview published in Malayalam in Mathrubhumi Weekly, October 17 2017.

CSV

Kochi is a curious choice as a site for an international art event like Biennale, isn’t it? It has played no prominent role insofar as art activity, practice or market is concerned, nor is it a metropolitan city like Mumbai or Delhi. One qualification, of course, could be its long cosmopolitan history of trade and the movement of people, ideas, religions or goods from time immemorial. Is KMB in a way, trying to invoke and re-imagine the cosmopolitan past or heritage of a place like Kochi?

Dilip Menon

I think there is a particular history to why such an event should happen in Kochi, and why it could be successful here alone. Kochi, being a port city, was always part of a universe that was much larger than the immediate geography within which it is located. So, like most port cities, it sits on the edge of land and looks out to the sea. When one thinks about the idea of cosmopolitanism, there is something about the already existing cosmopolitanism of port cities, whether it is Malacca, Kochi or Venice. It is not without significance that two of the more important biennales are in Venice and Kochi. I think that a port city is located in a much longer history of movements of people, ideas, materials and political ideologies across the ocean.  Even though these ports are now part of nation-states, their histories and memories are much deeper and much longer. The Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) is able to summon up these memories.

Continue reading “Thinking a local Cosmopolitanism – the Kochi Muziris Biennale: Interview with Dilip Menon by Riyas Komu and CS Venkiteswaran”

Why Two Hundred Ordinary Hindus Did Not See A Dead Muslim Child On A Railway Station In North India

On 22 June 2017 fifteen-year old Hafiz Junaid was stabbed to death on a Mathura-bound train from New Delhi. He was traveling home for Eid with his brothers and two friends. A dispute over seats resulted in a group of men repeatedly assaulting and stabbing Junaid and his companions. The assailants flung their bodies onto the Asoti railway platform. A crowd gathered. At some point an ambulance was called and two bodies were taken away. Junaid is dead. His companions are in critical condition. While one person has been arrested the police investigations are running into a wall of social opacity since they have been unable to find a single eye-witness to the incident. Of the 200 hundred strong crowd that assembled on Asoti railway platform on Thursday evening, the police cannot find one person who can say what they saw. The police cannot find a witness because something very peculiar seems to have happened to those present at Junaid’s death. A report by Kaunain Sherrif M in the Indian Express provides specific details. When asked if he had seen anything that evening, Ram Sharan a corn-vendor whose daily shift coincides with the killing, Sharan said he was not present at the time of the incident. Two staffers who were sent to investigate by the station master were unavailable for comment. Neither the station-master, the post-master or the railway guards saw the event they were present at.

In this startling piece the journalist reports how the public lynching of a Muslim child becomes a social non-event in contemporary India. He shows the reconfiguring, and splitting, of a social field of vision. He reports all the ways in which people – Hindus- did not see the body of a dead – Muslim – child that lay in front of them. The Hindus on the Asoti railway platform managed to collectively not see a 15 year old Muslim boy being stabbed to death. Then they collectively, and without prior agreement, continued to not see what they had seen after the event. This is the uniquely terrifying aspect of this incident on which this report reflects: the totalising force of an unspoken, but collectively binding, agreement between Hindus to not see the dead body of a Muslim child. Hindus on this railway platform in a small station in north India instantly produced a stranger sociality, a common social bond between people who do not otherwise know each other. By mutual recognition between strangers, Hindus at this platform agreed to abide by a code of silence by which the death of a Muslim child can not be seen by 200 people in full public view on a railway platform in today’s India. Continue reading “Why Two Hundred Ordinary Hindus Did Not See A Dead Muslim Child On A Railway Station In North India”

On Barak Valley Bandh on 16th December, 2016 – Some Nascent Observations: Arunima Chakraborty

This is a Guest Post by ARUNIMA CHAKRABORTY

Let’s begin with the usual: by ruing over Indian mainstream media’s overlooking of what could have been treated as more newsworthy. Today, that is, 16th of December, 2016 witnessed a bandh in southern Assam’s Barak valley protesting against the statement by the union minister of state for railways, Rajen Gohain that ‘Bengali…should be withdrawn from Barak valley as official language’ since ‘there cannot be two official languages’.[1] And a simple, layman-like google-news search reveals that there are just three entries on the issue/event.

This piece is aimed not at joining the state Congress and the local SUCI(Socialist Unity Centre of India) cadres who are decrying comment by Gohain, the union minister and a senior BJP leader in Assam but rather at attempting a delineation of the ominous portents which it seems to have unleashed. And of course, to trace the genealogy of the statement.

First of all, a rather facile fact: Mr. Gohain’s observation that there cannot be two official languages clashes with article 345 of the Indian constitution which allows for the adoption of one or more official languages by any state of the Indian union. Article 347 also allows for respecting the desire of a significant section of a populace of a state for the usage of a language of their choice.[2] A couple of months ago, while visiting Assam, I watched, or rather listened, on an Assamese news channel, a shrill voice issuing a caveat to its viewers, “…barak upatyakat asomiya bhasha nokoya hoiche”. ‘Assamese is no longer spoken in the Barak valley’. Anybody remotely familiar with the history of the region could have retorted back with the question, when was Assamese ever spoken in the region?

Continue reading “On Barak Valley Bandh on 16th December, 2016 – Some Nascent Observations: Arunima Chakraborty”

On Indian Exceptionalism and Kashmir: Dia Da Costa

This is a guest post by Dia Da Costa

‘If Trump is elected, I will move to Canada,’ many Americans noted in passing, in jest, and then in all seriousness once the results were out.

If it has taken this election result to make people recognize the pervasive racism in the US, that is because of the success of US exceptionalism and its ability to deflect attention from its ongoing colonization of indigenous land, relentless imperialism, Islamophobia, and ongoing brutalities against black people in the aftermath of abolition and the civil rights movement. If it has taken this election result to make people really want to move to Canada, that too is because of the success of Canadian multicultural exceptionalism. Apparently, Canadian exceptionalism is still able to pass as not-as-racist by deflecting attention from its ongoing colonization of indigenous land, relentless participation in imperialism cloaked all too often as humanitarian development, growing Islamophobia, and its self-congratulatory representation of itself as having no history of slavery even as its anti-Black violence pervades cities and small towns alike.

For those of us who can recognize these forms of exceptionalism, I want to ask if we acknowledge Indian exceptionalism, and its specific relation to Kashmir? ‘If Trump is elected, I will move back to India’, I saw many Indians say on social media. If it has taken this US election result to make Indians really want to move back to India, that is not just because of the apparent success of US exceptionalism among Indians, who could see racism but could ultimately deal with, and even love life in the US. It is also because of Indian exceptionalism. To be sure, Indian exceptionalism is nurtured by the caste and class privilege that allows some Indians to declare that they will simply up and leave when the going gets tough (whether it is in India or in the US), or joke about the same.

But there is more to it. Indian exceptionalism is a state projected discourse turned commonsense perception of India as a complicated and diverse nation that is ultimately unified against all odds by the absolute commitment of its people to democracy. Whether we believe it at face value or we critique the many excesses of the Indian state, ultimately something draws us to this idea of India as the world’s largest democracy. Continue reading “On Indian Exceptionalism and Kashmir: Dia Da Costa”

Kashmir’s Freedom is India’s Freedom: Hum Kya Chahte? Azadi

I do not think ordinary Indians support the brutality of army occupation in Kashmir. Despite what the Indian state says, and despite what the Indian army and CRPF are doing, I honestly do not believe that any ordinary Indian supports the torture of young men, the blinding of people attending a funeral, the rape of women, the killings and maiming and abuse and humiliation that are now a routinized fact of daily life in the Kashmir valley. To believe that ordinary Indians enjoy watching this spectacle of violence, that ordinary Indians take pleasure in the torture of children, would be to think India is now a country comprised of sadistic psychopaths. I honestly do not think ordinary Indians are psychopaths. I do think, however, that ordinary Indians, and I count myself amongst them, have somehow managed, till now, to keep some distance between what is happening in Kashmir and the idea of India as a whole. After all, India is a large and complex country, a huge and diverse society. Everything that happens in Kashmir, the brutality of the army and the security forces, cannot signify the whole truth of India we tell ourselves. It seems somehow unfair to us ordinary Indians that what happens in Kashmir reflects on us all.

But the time has come now to squarely face some hard truths about ourselves, and the dissimulations, psychological and social, by which we continue to live in this country and call ourselves ‘Indians’. Continue reading “Kashmir’s Freedom is India’s Freedom: Hum Kya Chahte? Azadi”

Reflections on Dissent -How Is Hannah Arendt Relevant for Contemporary Israel and India? Ira Chadha-Sridhar

This is a guest post by IRA CHADHA-SRIDHAR

In 2016, the age-old conflict between Israel and Palestine has become tougher and more violent at the ground level. The year has come with several disturbing developments in the region- the intensification of the Gaza blockade, the subsequent statement by the Hamas threatening to implement an explosion unless the blockade is lifted and Israel’s rejection of the French peace treaty for the region. Jean-Marc Ayrault, French Foreign Affairs Minister said, in April 2016 that, “The two sides are further apart than ever.” In other news, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, has been criticized for his statements claiming Hitler himself was a Zionist before “he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. The merits of Livingstone’s statements and the fallacious reasoning he employs has been rightly criticized by several international commentators. However, he has unknowingly raised larger, more important questions by his statements about how to criticize the Israeli state without being branded as “anti-Semitic” within international discourse- a problem that several commentators critical of the Israeli regime have faced. How can the international community legitimately advance its criticism of the Israeli state? Although critics of Israel are usually non-Jews, there has been a vibrant critique of the oppressive Israeli regime from the Jewish diaspora itself. For historical instruction, in this article, I draw upon the work of one of the earliest and most controversial voices of critique from the Israeli diaspora- the brutally honest voice of 20th century political philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Her book of unparalleled political influence, ‘Eichmann in Jersulelam: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, created what scholars often refer to as a “war” amongst intellectuals across the world that brought to question the validity of her theories and their political and global ramifications. (Elon 2006) Amongst the Jews, and, in particular, in Israel, Arendt’s work was met with anger and severe political backlash. She was labelled “Anti-Jew”, “Nazi” and a “Jew-hater”- labels that were intended to act as violent threats against her distinct, free intellectual voice. (Elon 2006). Continue reading “Reflections on Dissent -How Is Hannah Arendt Relevant for Contemporary Israel and India? Ira Chadha-Sridhar”

The Paths of Piety: Nandagopal R. Menon

This is a guest post by Nandagopal R. Menon

The recent disappearance of 21 Muslims (men and women) from Kerala – allegedly to join the IS – has created considerable panic in the state. Media and public discourses are rife with speculative reports about their whereabouts, their motives (or pathologies rather), the Islamic networks and scholars with whom they were associated and so on. In this note I want to think about one aspect of this discourse about the disappeared. What is striking is how a specific form of Islamic piety (Salafism) is sought to be, advertently or inadvertently, linked to the IS’ violent extremism. That is, though they are not exactly the same, practicing a certain kind of Salafism could or will lead to embracing the ideology of the IS. To be fair, there is no overt claim made on these lines, but the inordinate focus on Salafism and its practices in the context of IS-related panic creates the impression that there is some kind of organic, straightforward connection between Salafism and IS. Now whatever the precise definition of Salafism given by scholars, what concerns me here is the alleged nature of its “problematic” variant that is at the centre of the controversy in Kerala. This interpretation, sometimes termed “extreme” or “ascetic” Salafism to distinguish it from its “moderate” versions represented by some of Kerala’s major Muslim organisations, apparently stresses a “puritanical” piety that demands a literal interpretation of the Islamic tradition (primarily the Qur’an and hadith, or traditions of what the Prophet said, did or approved). For instance, since there are hadith which say that the Prophet kept goats, Muslims who strive to be pious should also take up herding goats. Similarly, this piety requires one to separate oneself from all kinds of “un-Islamic” ways of life – avoid using products brought with money involving paying or receiving interest, shunning various forms of arts like music and cinema, rejecting certain sartorial styles (trousers that fall below the ankles for men or dress that do not cover the face for women) etc. This form of “puritanical” Salafism thus marks out its practitioners as separate, distinct and even encourages one to (literally) seclude oneself from not only the rest of the society, but also from other Muslims (even family members) who do not adhere to this form of piety. Some “ascetic” Salafis are said to have travelled to Sri Lanka and Yemen, or carved out a separate space in Kerala itself, in their search for the perfect and complete Islamic way of life. Continue reading “The Paths of Piety: Nandagopal R. Menon”